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This particular page focuses on learning -- and on teaching and on schools and school systems. We're looking for examples of sustainable, effective practices that could serve as components of a sane and compassionate relationship between students and the people who are trying to help them. We believe that the sanity of our educational institutions is inseparable from our own sanity and well being.
Human beings evolved to live in groups where adults were often busy doing what children would need to learn to do. Children learned by observing, and by participating in whatever ways they were able. We still see this when children want to do what they see adults doing.
The way we teach now is much more abstract. Rather than being allowed to do something useful now, students are being prepared to do something useful in the future. However, the way we set up and run our schools is based on a lot of assumptions that may never have been justified -- that everyone needs the same basic preparation, that we know what preparation they all will need, that what they need is something adults have, and that teachers know how to give it to them.
Even if these assumptions once were correct, they're certainly wrong now, in this modern world of crisis after crisis. Our climate, population, economy, technology, food, air, water, health and who knows what else are all changing more and more quickly in ways that are more and more difficult to deal with using the "tried and true" methods of the past. We can only hope that our younger citizens will have the problem solving, communication and cooperation skills they will need to deal with it all.
Schools that require students to sit still, be quiet unless asked a question, and memorize whatever the current authority figure requires of them, are not going to be up to the challenge of helping people develop the sanity, courage, compassion and creativity they will need in the coming decades. We don't need new citizens who are good at obeying orders; we need people who can think independently and come up with solutions to emerging problems that their teachers could never have even imagined, much less solved.
Fortunately, alternative methods of teaching are available -- not easy ones, necessarily, but workable ones, well tested, that immediately improve the lives of the people who understand and practice them, and at the same time make obvious contributions to the long-term well being of students, teachers and their communities.
We've already found some of these alternatives, as you can see by exploring some of the resources featured on this page. With the help of our readers, we'll surely find more, and we'll continue trying to make it clear why these ways of teaching are worth learning about.
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Advocates of standard schooling practices, emphasizing obedience to authority, rote memorization, rewards and punishments, and standardized tests, often claim that these doctrines are "scientific" -- based on research on learning and proven by effectiveness studies. Non-standard approaches that recommend unstructured, more active classrooms, with an emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and cooperation rather than competition, are dismissed as muddle headed wishful thinking, with no factual basis, emphasizing feeling good at the expense of learning.
The actual situation is the direct reverse of these stereotypes. Even more surprising is that the research which seems to support the use of standard methods suffers from the same logical errors that keep standardized testing, as it is used in our schools today, from giving a valid assessment of students' learning.
You probably remember the parable about the man looking for his keys under a street light, rather than over by his house where he probably lost them, because "the light is better over here." Much of the so-called scientific research that is cited to support traditional schooling practices has just this character, studying simplified artificial trasks, and assuming that we can generalize the results to the learning of complex problem solving and communication skills.
Some researchers were braver than that, and did actually study directly things like how children learn to read when no one is trying to teach them. The results were fascinating, and the teaching methods based on that research work astonishingly well.
Pointing out clear surveys of the evidence relevant to a choice of standard and innovative schooling methods is no easy task, but we can make a good start with the work of Alfie Kohn. His work is a bit to polemical for some peoples tastes, but he does a good job of going over the evidnce, and his conclusions make sense. He argues that standards should be developed out of an understanding of how children actually learn, rather than out of politically motivated movements.
Some of Kohn's books focus on specific principles, and the evidence that supports their application -- and warns of the consequences of violating them. Punished by Rewards, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, and Beyond Discipline fall into this category. Other books, like The Schools Our Children Deserve, The Case Against Standardized Testing, and What to Look for in a Classroom, he discusses the application of these and other principles to schooling.
Here we are pleased to list a few superb examples of sustainable,
effective practices that could indeed serve as components of a sane and
compassionate approach to teaching and learning.
Betty Edwards Teaches Drawing
"... when I started teaching, I tried to communicate my way of thinking about drawing to my students. It didn't work very well, and, to my distress, out of a class of thirty or so students only a few learned to draw." For over a decade she worked on this problem: "how to enable all the students in a class instead of just a few to learn the skill of drawing."
The traditional practice of "breaking" horses is disturbingly
similar to the various forms of coercion used in schools. Monty Roberts,
who developed a nonviolent method of gentling and training horses, urges
us to give up coercion and begin respecting people (and animals!) as individuals
responsible for their own choices and their own learning. You can't teach
anyone anything -- but you can invite them to learn with you, and set up
conditions to help them do so.
Although aphasia was (and still is) generally considered incurable, Dr. Hildred Schuell discovered how to gradually cure most cases, by removing the element of panic and struggle from therapy sessions.
Unbiased awareness of what is actually going on, within
ones own being and in ones environment, the basis of all true learning,
automatically leads to appropriate action. When ones mind and body are
synchronized, when what is actually happening is experienced on the spot,
actions mesh with situations as they truly are. Developing such basic sanity,
such authentic presence in the actual situation, is possible for all of
We'll be continuing to look for projects and methods that can serve as models, and for specific practices that solve certain specific problems in ways that may be generalizable to other problems. Suggestions of appropriate examples would, of course, be warmly welcomed.
Net Quest Learning Links
John Taylor Gatto
The current standards movement, which demands that students learn lists of dates and facts, prepares kids for Jeopardy, Kohn argues, not real life. He questions whether today's schools are truly floundering, warning that romantic memories of the old school, with its tests, worksheets, and drills, are purely that -- memories romanticized by time and perception. Kohn also takes issue with the backlash against the whole-language approach to reading instruction.
to Look For in a Classroom: And Other Essays, Kohn "challenges us to
reconsider some of our most basic assumptions about children and education."
Why is cooperative learning so threatening? Why is detracking is so fiercely
opposed? "Kohn argues for giving children more opportunity to participate
in their own schooling, for transforming classrooms into caring communities,
and for providing the kind of education that taps and nourishes children's
The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer; Addison Wesley, 1997. After years of research, Langer has concluded that many of the problems with current schooling systems can be traced to seven commonly held myths, and teachers' efforts apply them. The myths are simply stated: The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature; paying attention means being focused on one thing at a time; delaying gratification is important; rote memorization is necessary; forgetting is a problem; intelligence is knowing "what's out there''; and there are right and wrong answers. Langer counters with five principles of her own, the basis of what she calls "sideways learning'': openness to novelty; alertness to distinction; sensitivity to different contexts; implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; and orientation in the present. She offers alternative approaches based on her five principles, with startling results.
You Are the Earth -- David Suzuki & Kathy Vanderlinden. Everything on Earth is connected: Here are science, activities, ideas and stories to help children understand the relationship between human beings and the environment, and what they themselves can do to improve things. -- more
One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards -- Susan Ohanian
Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing -- Linda M. McNeil
Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho -- Jon Katz
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Revised on October 23, 2001
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